Having lived in the USA for a number of years, there are certain restaurants that I always make a point of visiting whenever I return. With an overabundance of really good restaurants, I have used the following criteria to whittle the list down to just 5 places:
- Sit Down Restaurants with Full Service - this knocked Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread and Five Guys Burger and Fries off the list, all of which are great places to grab a quick lunch.
- Only available in the USA - I first encountered the Olive Garden and Rainforest Cafe in the US and would have included on the Top 5 List, however they now have international locations.
- One of a kind menu items - each of the restaurants shown below has a signature dish that you can not get anywhere else.
- In more than 5 States - there are a number of smaller regional chains that are worthwhile (such as Tijuana Flats), however I wanted this list to be applicable for the entire USA.
If you are planning a road trip or a destination vacation, you can't go wrong with any of the following.
5 - Cracker Barrel Old Country Store & Restaurant
Even though Cracker Barrel was started in 1969, it has the ambiance and nostalgia of a 1920's country store. When you enter the store, you half expect to hear the theme song to the Andy Griffiths Show whistling in the background. Each location has a store featuring down-home crafts, toys and candy. The restaurant is very inexpensive but the selection is quite limited. While you wait for your food, peg game is a challenging diversion.
Cracker Barrel can be found along most interstate highways along the 42 states where it operates. The company went public in 1981 and is traded under the NASDAQ symbol CRBL.
As a bonus, here is the solution to the peg game (after all, who wants to be called an eg-no-ra-moose after leaving 4 pegs) - each number in the table below corresponds to a hole on the triangular shaped board:
- Step 1: Start with the 1-hole left open.
- Step 2: With the 4-peg, jump into the 1-hole and remove the 2-peg;
- Step 3: With the 6-peg, jump into the 4-hole and remove the 5-peg;
- Step 4: With the 1-peg, jump into the 6-hole and remove the 3-peg;
- Step 5: With the 7-peg, jump into the 2-hole and remove the 4-peg;
- Step 6: With the 13-peg, jump into the 4-hole and remove the 8-peg;
- Step 7: With the 2-peg, jump into the 7-hole and remove the 4-peg;
- Step 8: With the 10-peg, jump into the 8-hole and remove the 9-peg;
- Step 9: With the 7-peg, jump into the 9-hole and remove the 8-peg;
- Step 10: With the 15-peg, jump into the 13-hole and remove the 14-peg;
- Step 11: With the 12-peg, jump into the 14-hole and remove the 13-peg;
- Step 12: With the 6-peg, jump into the 13-hole and remove the 9-peg;
- Step 13: With the 14-peg, jump into the 12-hole and remove the 13-peg;
- Step 14: With the 11-peg, jump into the 13-hole and remove the 12-peg.
4 - Cheesecake Factory
The Cheesecake Factory would have been higher on my list, however a couple of mediocre experiences at the Scottsdale location has left me wondering whether the incidents were isolated or if this chain is starting to lose its edge. The food is usually excellent - let's hope that 2 less than stellar meals is not indicative of any shift in the company's focus on quality.
Most of Cheesecake's locations are very busy at peak hours. Notoriously popular, reservations are not available and you will be given a beeper to hold your place in line. The menu has over 200 items (and spans 20 pages) and can be overwhelming to the newcomer. Portions are huge, so if you want to save room for the cheesecake, go light with your entree.
The company is publicly traded under the symbol CAKE. In addition to The Cheesecake Factory, the parent company owns the Grand Lux Cafe and RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen. You can find this chain in 36 states.
3 - BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse
As good as the food is, the craft beers at BJ's are absolutely incredible. If you like dark beer, the Tatanka Stout is one of my all-time favorites.
BJ's began in California in 1978 as a pizzeria and have grown to 16 states. The company went public on the NASDAQ (symbol BJRI) in 1996 and the parent company does not operate any other restaurant chains.
They normally have a wait at peak times and only accept reservations for groups of 10 or more. If you don't want to wait for a table, you should arrive just before 5:30 pm.
2 - Fleming's Prime Steakhouse
Fleming's is a relative newcomer to the US dining scene. Since its launch in 1998, it has grown to over 100 locations in 28 states (generally found in the more expensive areas of town). The parent company (Bloomin' Brands) also own and operate Outback Steakhouse, Roys Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, Carrabba's Italian Grill and Bonefish Grill.
Fleming's is on the expensive side, but their steaks and wines are well worth the price. This is the quintessential steakhouse experience where you must order all of your side plates individually (ie if you order the Filet Mignon, you will only get a steak on your plate). The atmosphere can be loud and the place is usually packed, so reservations are a good idea.
1 - P.F. Chang's China Bistro
The Lettuce Wraps, Mongolilan Beef and Crispy Green Beans make this my favorite restaurant to visit when travelling to the US. The interior is inspired by China's Xi'an terra cotta warriers of the 12th century, and the food is simple and delicious. The chain also has a large selection of gluten free menu choices.
The company is owned by PFCB Inc, who operate both PF Chang's China Bistro and Pei Wei Asian Diner (a scaled down version of PF Chang's for a more casual dining experience). The very first restaurant was launched in Scottsdale, AZ in 1993 and has since expanded to 39 states. The company was acquired by the private investment firm of Centerbridge Partners, LP in July 2012.
I would love to hear about your favorite restaurant chain. Please leave me your top choice in the comments box below.